Bill Hess took his first photograph of Kunuk late in the spring whaling season of 1986. Photo by Bill Hess

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

I am often asked what my favorite photo is of the many I have taken during my work with the Iñupiat over four decades. “I don’t have a favorite,” I answer. Yet the question always pulls one image of Jonathan Aiken, Sr. — “Kunuk” — into my head.

It is far from the best composed picture I have taken. The focus could be sharper. It’s grainy, not as dramatic as those I shot moments before when Kunuk threw the harpoon and Eli Solomon fired the shoulder gun.

Before I met Kunuk, I heard many things about an Iñupiat whaling captain’s ideal traits. In the four years I followed him and his crew on Chukchi Sea ice off Barrow (Utqiagvik), Kunuk exemplified these traits.

He was humble. Quiet. Not once did I ever hear him brag about anything. He never pointed the finger of praise and congratulations at himself. His knowledge of the land, the sea, the ice, and the animals thereof was immense — wider in scope than most scientific publications. His hunting skills were honed to as close to perfection as I believe hunting skills can be.

He was generous with his catch. He shared it far and wide. He was gentle. I never saw him lose his temper — not even at me, and I did many stupid things.

I took my first photograph of Kunuk late in the spring whaling season of 1986, just months after I published the first issue of Uiñiq. Kunuk had harpooned a bowhead and brought it the edge the shore ice, but before it could be hauled out of the water, ice moved in and covered it. The whalers then cut a hole through ice several feet thick, attached the block and tackle. I arrived just as they pulled it onto the ice.

Kunuk leaped onto the the tail, scurried up the body, scooped two young grandsons out of the crowd and posed for the customary picture.

Something about him made me want to follow him for however many seasons it took to photograph him as he hunted, harpooned and landed a bowhead. The four years I did follow him came during a time of unjustly tiny quotas imposed by an outside world who did not understand.

For years, I had heard stories of how a whale will give itself to a captain and crew it deems worthy. When this bowhead swam up to Kunuk’s umiaq on April 26, 1988, it appeared to me as though it bowed in recognition. Kunuk threw the harpoon. Eli Solomon followed with a shot from the shoulder gun. The whale disappeared beneath the water. We felt the vibration of two bombs. Several quiet moments passed. The whale rose back to the surface and rolled onto its side, fluke up. Kunuk raised his arms over his head and shouted out in joy and praise. It was the first bowhead of the season. It was the first time I saw a man accept the gift of the whale for his people.

Bill Hess is an independent photojournalist who from 1985 to 2018 photographed, edited and produced Uiñiq, a community-funded periodical devoted to people and events relating to Alaska’s North Slope Borough. Sasquatch Books published his book, “Gift of the Whale: The Iñupiat Bowhead Hunt, a Sacred Tradition,” in 1999.